Book Review | H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald


He felt it necessary to explain that his self-satisfaction was not egotism, but ‘actually a horrible surprise at being good at anything after having been so bad at living for 30 years.’

9780802123411Is H is for Hawk a book about falconry? Sure, if you want it to be. But it’s about a lot more than that: grief, depression, loneliness, isolation. It’s a literary critique, it’s nature writing – this is a book that is both very specifically about falconry but also not really about falconry at all. This is a book that, as the dust jacket says, defies categorization.

As with Dryland, this is a book I likely would never have picked up if Book Riot hadn’t sent it to me. Despite the fact that it’s on a billion best-of lists for 2015, a book about falconry just doesn’t seem to be in my wheelhouse. Turns out I knew little about this book and even less about my wheelhouse.

I didn’t immediately fall in love with this book. I struggled through the first few chapters and kept thinking, “Why is this book on falconry so popular?” but then all of a sudden it wasn’t about falconry at all. It was about grief and memory and longing and loneliness and Macdonald had so much to tell me about all these topics and such beautiful language with which to tell it.

I wish everyone would read this book but I don’t know what else to say about it. I’ve been working on this review for almost two months and I’m not getting any closer to figuring out what I want to say about it. So, here you go, some out-of-context quotes that will just have to suffice.

For the first time since the hawk arrived White felt exposed. Being a novice is safe. When you are learning how to do something, you do not have to worry about whether or not you are good at it. But when you have done something, have learned how to do it, you are not safe any more. Being an expert opens you up to judgement. 

* * * *

The archaeology of grief is not ordered. It is more like earth under a spade, turning up things you had forgotten. Surprising things come to light: not simply memories, but states of mind, emotions, older ways of seeing the world. 

* * * *

It’s a child’s world, full of separate places. Give me a paper and pencil now and ask me to draw a map of the fields I roamed about when I was small, and I cannot do it. But change the question, and ask me to list what was there and I can fill pages. The wood ants’ nest. The new pond. The oak covered in marble galls. The birches by the motorway fence with fly agarics at their feet. These things were the waypoints of my world. And other places became magic through happenstance. 

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2 thoughts on “Book Review | H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

  1. I’m curious – how much of the book actually focuses on the hawk and hawk behavior, or the narrator’s relationship with the bird? As someone who works with raptors in a rehab setting, I keep finding myself glancing at the book and wondering if I should read it, but I don’t know if it’s the human-animal bond book I’m hoping it is. =P

    • If you’re looking for a human-animal bond book then this is your book! I’d say probably 80% of it is about her training the goshawk. The book is about grieving and loss but it’s all told via her challenges bonding with this bird and then relating that to other things going on in her life.

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